20 Tips for Writing Magic Systems
So, you know you want to write a story with magic in it, but you want to come up with something new. Where do you start? The possibilities are practically endless. Below I have compiled a list of questions you can ask yourself to get started and then a few ideas for the basis of a magic system.
You can also check out my other articles on this topic in the section Creating Magic Systems.
Some general questions:
1) The most important thing for you to decide about your magic system is what the cost is for the users. (I wish I could take credit for this but I got it from Orson Scott Card) For example, in the Dragonlance Chronicles series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the mages must memorize the spells and once they use one, it flees from their mind and they must spend hours learning them again. In many magical systems the magic-user must expend energy of some sort to use their magic. This can be vague though and makes the user feel all-powerful which is often tiring (or makes you wonder why they don’t magically solve all their problems.) There are more imaginative solutions however. Another example is from the Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson. In these books magic is fueled by light generated by a great storm that sweeps the planet and is trapped in gemstones.
Get creative. Think of ways that using magic could be awkward, physically, mentally, socially. What would change in the culture of your world based on the cost of magic? If you can only cast spells when you’re naked, that’s going to make using it more difficult. Or nudity will be viewed differently by society as a whole. In the Stormlight Archive the light-infused gemstones are also the currency of the world. That means magic is expensive and even though the gems can be re-infused, most people would have to be careful how they use their light.
2) What is the source of your magic? Does it come from the magic-user, nature, spells, gods? How does the source of magic influence who can use it? What does a person have to do to learn to use it? Can anyone tap into the magic or is only a certain kind of person able to access the source?
3) Do your characters need to use an item to harness or focus magic? (Think wand.) If they need an object where do they get one and how difficult is it to acquire?
4) Do the users need to use their hands or voice to direct magic? Must the motions or spells be precise or are they just whatever the particular user needs?
5) Is there a difference between genders? One of the basic elements of the whole Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan was the way the two genders interact with magic. This concept can add some interesting challenges for your characters but it can also reinforce stereotypes (Such as the hag or witch versus the noble wizard). You can also see what happens when you add more than two genders to a system. If your magic system is a male-female deal, how does a trans person use magic?
6) Does a person’s age influence his or her ability to use magic? Can a child use it or does it not manifest until a certain age?
7) Is there any substance, person, place, or other thing that negates your magic? Once a person has it do they always have it or can an enemy block it somehow?
8) Is there any way to strengthen a person’s magical abilities? More study, a special talisman, or the blessing of a deity?
9) What kind of magic is it? Is it related to nature and natural events like basic elements and weather, is it related to the mind like telepathy and telekinesis, or is it all about illusion and perception of reality?
10) Are there branches or does every person have the same basic abilities? For example, if your magic system is based on the elements of water, earth, fire, and air, one person may be allowed to control one or all of those.
11) How does a person find out s/he can use magic? Does s/he get invited to a magical school ( a la Harry Potter), does s/he have to be in mortal danger in order to “snap” and reveal his/her powers (as in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson), or does one purposely set out to learn it?
12) What time period does your story take place in and does that time influence how magic is used? If your magic system is based on spells and potions, could modern technology help, or hinder, these methods? Perhaps your wizard could synthesize rare ingredients. Can someone speak spells through a cell phone to full potency? The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher uses this concept well.
Some Random Ideas for Basis of Magic:
13) Food. Different types of food could produce different magical abilities. Maybe beans helps one fly and meat gives one super-human strength. It sounds goofy but I think it would be fun. And we need goofy stories too.
14) Sleep. One must sleep for a time period proportional to the amount of magic s/he wants to use. I imagine this would make magic rare. Magic of any consequence anyway.
15) Music. Different sounds, pitches, etc, resonate with a person and produce magical ability or are themselves the instrument of magical feats. In Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo can strum his shamisen and make all sorts of things happen. You could also assign different types of abilities to different instruments, styles, notes and so forth. Flutes can make things grow while trumpets break things.
16) Books. This one isn’t very random (I’m sitting in a library right now) and it isn’t new. Tons of magic systems revolve around books but there’s always room for one more. Maybe characters and objects can be temporarily taken from books to help at a given time. Then they dissolve or whoosh back to their pages. Or maybe by a burning a book one releases the magic trapped inside and the story elements come to life. This could be a fun one to play with.
17) Tattoos. This one also isn’t new. I’ve read a few stories that use this but I am still fascinated by it. I want to write a story about magic tattoos so badly. The tattoos could be temporary, needing to be replaced when they are used like some in the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. This series also has permanent marks as well. But you could also play with the mobility, transparency, ink source, or even sentience of the tattoos.
18) Language. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman uses a language, called Language, to make things real. The idea of a magical language is commonly used, but again, there are so many variations. What happens to a magical language when it is a certain people’s main language. What happens if dialects appear. What happens if there are more than one magical languages. The difference between spoken and written language could be explored. One language could be rendered in a phonetic language, like ours, and also in pictographs. What then? What if there was a way to create a new magical language? I could probably go on ad nauseam on this one so I’ll just stop.
19) Dance. There have been magic systems that use gestures to accomplish things, with or without words. Think of the movie Dr. Strange. But what about using the whole body either alone or with music.
20) Energy. This may sound like the idea about sleep, but I promise, it’s different. The energy could come from anywhere. Rubbing a balloon on one’s head or sticking one’s finger in an
outlet. Try making a magic system where the power behind magic is actually power.
There are so many ways to create a magic system and each one of those ways has variations. Just look around you and try to think of how the objects, people, and places you see could be used to create magic. Reading is also a good way to come up with new magic systems. You know what’s been done but you can also look at a book and say, “That’s cool but what if it worked like this instead?” Most of all, have fun! I have more prompts for magic systems available here!
If this was helpful please share it with your friends and check out my 10 Tips to Keep Readers Engaged in Your Fantasy World.
What is your favorite magic system in a book or movie?
In my story there are magical tattoos with elements/symbols from the Bulgarian folklore. We call them шевица/shevitsa (embroidery). Some of their origin is Thracian. Tattoos can heal or protect, or enhance the hero’s power and so on (depending on the symbol).
One of my heroes is fire-dancer (nestinarka/нестинарка). She is chosen from the fire elemental and she can rule the fire.
That sounds fascinating! I love the translation to embroidery. It gives it a unique feeling.
I don’t know much about Bulgarian folklore but I’d love to learn more. Do you know of a good source for beginners? I would love to do an article for my mythology prompts series.
That would be lovely! I’ll research for suitable books in English and I will write back with information. 😀
Thank you so much! I look forward to it.
I’ve got something for you. Short story about kukeri and samodivi.
Thanks! I’ll take a look as soon as I can.
This actually answered my downside, thank you!
No, problem! Glad I could help. 🙂